Timberwolves

Anthony Edwards is a Giant Bag of Maybe

Photo Credit: Stephen Lew (USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe Anthony Edwards goes first overall. Maybe he’s worth it, maybe he’s not.

A year ago this time, Edwards was the buzz of the 2020 NBA Draft class. Though ESPN had him ranked fourth in their final recruiting rankings, the 6’5” Edwards provided that tantalizing allure of an athletic, scoring wing that so many draftheads fall in love with. The NBA Draft is a crapshoot through and through, but for some reason that often feels especially true with ball-handling, score-first, shooting guards. Andrew Wiggins, Mario Hezonja and R.J. Barrett have been the last three pure shooting guards to be drafted in the top 5, though James Harden and Victor Oladipo also fit the criteria if we expand the timeframe a little longer.

But then we saw what Edwards was capable of against college competition and it was, in a word, underwhelming. Yes, Edwards averaged 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists a night, but there were very few glimpses of a player who many were proclaiming would soon take the NBA by storm. Also concerning was that these stats came on a 16-16 Georgia team, whose only two Top 25 wins came against an Auburn team missing their star Isaac Okoro (Auburn smashed Georgia by 22 points in an earlier meeting with Okoro, a projected top 10 pick), and a overrated Memphis team, who proved undeserving of their No. 9 ranking when they finished the year at 5th place in their mid-major conference.

In fact, that Auburn win can be viewed as a microcosm of Edwards’ season. His 18 points led Georgia in scoring, but it came on 7-of-16 shooting, with 7 turnovers. Despite shooting 4-of-6 from two, Edwards — who shot 29% on the season from three — attempted 10 shots from deep, the majority of which came with considerable time remaining on the shot clock.

Down the stretch, as Georgia was nursing a 5-point lead and looking to run clock, Edwards’ lack of game awareness was on full display. He started by launching deep, contested three-pointers with 19 seconds on the shot clock. On the next possession he decided to attack two tall defenders at the rim in transition with 26 seconds on the shot clock. Then he capped off this back-to-back-to-back possession string with another deep, contested three-pointer, this one with 13 seconds on the shot clock.

Regardless of outcome (he did, to his credit, make two of these shots), Georgia ended up trading the opportunity to run more than a minute off the game clock for three ill-advised, well-contested shots from Edwards.

This lack of awareness is a common theme in Edwards’ game. Simple passes to beat rotations are left unthrown, often in lieu of drives that predictably end with contested, off-balance shots from 5 to 8 feet. In the instances where Edwards realizes he took one too many dribbles on his attacks and hits the eject button, the resulting jump-passes, frequently occurring from behind the backboard, that leave Edwards teammates scrambling to find new soft spots in the defense (a task that was easier, and achieved, earlier in in his drive) before Edwards hits the ground. This Georgia team was certainly lacking in the spacing that he needs for his best chances to succeed on offense, but it takes two to tango, and there’s enough blame to go around for Georgia’s offensive woes.

So, if the Wolves do grab him, either with the first overall pick, or in a situation where a trade down occurs, what could an Edwards fit in Minnesota look like? Well, it’s actually very hard to say.

On one hand, the increased spacing that playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns would provide would undoubtedly make life easier on Edwards from a decision-making standpoint. But, to pull back on that, Edwards didn’t exactly thrive with making the easy read in college against college defenders, so even with the spacing relief that comes with playing alongside the best shooting center in the league, Edwards would have to learn how to harness it to the fullest.

Another benefit to landing in the Twin Cities would be that between KAT and D’Angelo Russell, Edwards could be allowed to take a backseat on his creation load, his usage rate of 30% at Georgia will not be needed in Minnesota. Playing as a third option to two established All-Stars would, in theory, allow Edwards to focus on what he does best in the half-court. But therein lies another problem: What does Edwards do best in the half-court?

Heading over to Edwards’ Synergy page from his lone college season doesn’t exactly give us any hints. Starting with the good, Edwards was very, very deadly in transition. His 144 tracked possessions was the most in major college basketball this season, and among the players with the 100 most transition possessions, Edwards ranked 7th in overall efficiency. This makes sense: Edwards is a good athlete, plays shooting guard and has an aggressive mentality. He should be among the best transition players in college basketball if he’s going to be in consideration for the top pick.

But, the rest of Synergy’s tracking numbers range anywhere from uninspiring to just downright bad. Edwards was about average when it came to finishing at the rim in the half-court, shooting 54%, and his ability to draw fouls is nothing to write home about on a per-possession basis. There should be some sort of a tradeoff when playing on a team with bad spacing. As shooting percentage at the rim goes down, there should be some increase in a player’s ability to get to the free throw line, especially for an athlete of Edwards ability.

Instead of trying to draw fouls, however, it seems that Edwards was more content to simply settle for bad shots. While he shot 3.0 field goals per game tracked as coming at the rim in the half-court, he took 2.7 shots per game coming in the mid-range or off floaters, shots that he made only a combined 32% of the time.

Also, as briefly touched on before, Edwards is far from an NBA-ready shooter. Shooting only 23 of 79 on his catch-and-shoot threes, he actually shot worse on his open catch-and-shoot attempts (22%), than his guarded ones (34%). To say that neither of those numbers inspire confidence in his ability to provide spacing would be an understatement.

As you’d expect, when digging beyond just the raw percentages of his shot selection by location, some of his play-type numbers are even more concerning. His pick-and-roll play was fine, but nothing to write home about. His ability to score in isolation was comparatively better than his Division 1 peers, but his points per possession of 0.89 is considerably lower than the overall NBA average of roughly 1.00. In fact, the only two play types that Edwards scored above 1.00 points per possession during his time in Georgia were in transition and on cuts.

If you’re drafting a shooting guard high in the lottery, it would make sense to know that they have an NBA-ready skill. It appears that at no point this year did Anthony Edwards really have a college-ready skill that he could hang his hat on.

If you only watched highlight mixes of Edwards on YouTube, it would be easy to talk yourself into him as being a player who clearly has more skills than his numbers say he does. Those 3 or 4 minute highlight reels are tailor-made for players like Edwards. You see, Edwards loves to try a lot of different things in the half-court. He splits picks, he takes step-back threes, he is able to gather the ball in a crowd, take two quick steps, and still finish with a dunk that knifes through the traffic that is reminiscent of a young Dwyane Wade.

But, the clips of just the successful deployments of the entire range of a guards skillset obscures the fact that Anthony had a lot of attempts, and you’re only seeing the 20 to 30% of possessions that end with a made basket.

You don’t see all the times that Edwards ignores a teammate wide-open in the near corner, hands up and knees bent, ready to fire on a three, but instead Edwards decides that after beating the first level of the defense, there’s no reason not to attack the second and the third level as well, resulting in an off-balance floater after three or four too many dribbles.

You don’t see Edwards getting the slow-footed big man switched out onto him, and instead of leveraging his quickness to attack with penetration, lets the opposing big off the hook by settling for a three with 18 seconds on the shot clock.

And you certainly don’t see the lazy passes and unforced turnovers, like when Edwards under-threw a teammate so badly from only 12 feet away that the lob pass bounced at the Auburn defender’s feet before it was off to the races in transition.

YouTube viewers will only see Edwards, at 6’5”, athletic and quick. He sure looks the part, dunking that ball through the teeth of the defense, and hitting those step-back threes with a little bit of that superstar fadeaway on release. Man, Edwards is a steal, you see how he flicked that double-clutch layup over his head while he was on the way down? How could this guy NOT be the next high-scoring leadman of an NBA team?

Because you have to imagine that for every example I just gave, and they are real plays, those would come at the expense of every other player on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

What if that was D’Angelo Russell standing all alone in the corner, begging for the rock, while Edwards decides to over-dribble?

What if that pick-and-roll that forced the big out onto Edwards also resulted in a guard having to defend KAT in the post, and Edwards launches that three while KAT screams for the ball five feet from the rim with a player eight inches shorter than him on his back?

Yeah, maybe Edwards figures it out, and maybe the spacing that the NBA provides will help him see the floor. Maybe he just didn’t trust his Georgia teammates, and he would never leave a player like KAT or DLo hanging. Maybe we look back on his teammates, the situation, the place that Anthony was at in his own development, fresh off years of being coddled by his physically inferior high school competition, and we can’t help but notice the similarities to Jaylen Brown and his deeply scrutinized time at California. Maybe Edwards is so clearly Wiggins, and we just don’t want to see it.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Because this is the first pick, and you shouldn’t gamble on a bag of “maybes.”

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